Midnight sun has a dark side

Times Staff Writer

He ended up in a tipped-over chair, his tennis shoes pointing to the sky, blood running.

It happened fast. The girls were out in backless dresses and the boys were ordering ice creams. Petar Grujic finished his cappuccino, clinked a few coins in the saucer for a tip. Pistol shots snapped the seaside air outside Cafe Nesta, and Grujic, a poker player and mafia confidant, tumbled backward.

The masked shooter vanished down sunlit cobblestones. A blanket was thrown over the deceased, covering all but the sneakers, white ones with blue stripes. Evidence bags rustled like whispers. Ambulance doors closed and another guy with a Balkan last name and a cellphone full of intriguing numbers rolled toward the morgue.

This city smells of creosote, perfume and the occasional wisp of gunpowder. Cruise ships billow in like white clouds upon the sea. The government website says 270,000 people live here, speaking 100 languages and representing 164 nationalities. Until that July afternoon in 2005, Grujic was one of them. The Serb was stitched in to a Balkan organized crime network that spread across Scandinavia in the late 1980s, bringing antitank missiles and hit men to the land of social harmony and polished Volvos.

Serbian and ethnic Albanian clans today control heroin flowing north out of Afghanistan, weapons smuggled through the Balkans, prostitutes trafficked from Africa to the alleys of Copenhagen; they mastermind the brazen armed robberies of security trucks ferrying cash, and have connections to a Norwegian criminal organization behind the daylight museum heist of "The Scream."

Theirs is a dark story of immigration in which economic desperation and then war sent migrants and refugees streaming through the continent. Some of today's most wanted Balkan criminals arrived in Sweden, Norway and Denmark as teenagers in the 1970s and '80s when their families answered calls for construction and factory workers. Others trickled in with refugees fleeing the 1990s Bosnian and Kosovo wars, trailing connections to mafia clans that thrived on the reputedly criminal state run by former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

'Extremely violent'

"The ethnic Albanian mafia is very powerful and extremely violent," said Kim Kliver, chief investigator for organized crime with the Danish National Police. "If you compare them to the Italian Mafia, the Albanians are stronger and not afraid of killing."

Such viciousness has jolted Scandinavia, where until recently bank deposit trucks in many cities traveled with unarmed guards. These days Heckler machine guns, Molotov cocktails and Kalashnikovs are the new accouterments to crime scenes and police evidence rooms. Shootouts and assassination attempts echo through Stockholm, Copenhagen and other cities. Even in relatively small Malmo, six Balkan mafia figures have been slain since 2002, according to police.

"They brought this gangster mentality that wasn't anything like the normal Swedish criminal," said one Swedish police investigator, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. "Sweden is a good country for the Balkan guys. It's good money, it's easy to hide, and compared to their countries the prisons are like heaven."

With the loosening of Europe's borders in recent years, it's easy for a drug trafficker to load a Mercedes with heroin in Bulgaria and drive across the continent and over the sea to Scandinavia. If he's arrested, he'll encounter lenient judicial systems. If he's jailed, he'll find escape an option, like the ethnic Albanian drug smuggler from Kosovo who paid off a guard and slipped out of a Norwegian prison in a truck, or the Serb in a Stockholm prison who was given a weekend pass to visit his wife and sneaked off to Greece.

"We need tougher laws, but that directly contradicts our open society," said Bo Lundqvist, a Malmo-based detective superintendent investigating the Grujic slaying. "We don't have the equivalent of a racketeering act. We can't bug offices or cars. There's no plea-bargaining for criminals willing to testify against organized crime. And we're looking at individual crimes and not the larger picture. We get the small courier but not the big guy in Europe."

The ranks of couriers are endless and globalized, relying on doctored passports, cellphones and scattered diasporas. Law enforcement authorities estimate that even a small Albanian gang may smuggle as much as 440 pounds of heroin a year into Scandinavia.

Two of the most renowned Balkan figures, police say, work on opposite sides of Sweden. Naser Dzeljilji is an ethnic Albanian from Macedonia who lives in Goteborg, on the west coast. Milan Sevo is a Serb nicknamed the godfather of Stockholm. Dzeljilji is slight and quiet. A muscular man with a goatee, Sevo is gregarious; his wedding, police say, was an underworld social event of cigars and champagne.

Police say both men are smooth and likable, and both have survived assassination attempts, including one this summer, when two gunmen shot Dzeljilji in both arms and through the liver while he was parking his car. Sevo's enemies have tried to kill him with bombs, nails and bullets. He has slipped into hiding.

Sevo's police file is a narrative of a man navigating two worlds. His family roots are reportedly near Bosanski Petrovac on the western edge of what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was a toddler when he and his family arrived in Sweden. As a teenager in the suburbs of Stockholm, Sevo discovered taekwondo.

He ran with a group of other 15- and 16-year-olds who, according to police, veered into crime by their early 20s. They had a proclivity for robbing money transport trucks, fraud and extortion.

"They were a special group," said another police investigator, adding that 10 of the original 25 members of the organization have since been killed or died of drug use. "One of them even became an actor in his own movie. Sevo became a leader of this group. He was a tough guy. He has a lot of guts and a lot of confidence."

By the early 1990s, Sevo's criminal offenses included weapons, drugs, conspiracy and dealing in steroids. At the same time, Yugoslavia was cracking along ethnic lines. Nationalism and war rumbled; suddenly geopolitics had meaning on the tidy streets of Stockholm, where Balkan gun-runners, cigarette smugglers and dope dealers mingled with refugees.

There were also whispers of the latest exploits of Zeljko Raznatovic, known as Arkan, a bank robber and jewel thief wanted throughout Europe. He became a Serbian hero by commanding paramilitary brigades that killed Bosnian Muslims and Croats before his own assassination in a Belgrade hotel lobby.

Swedish police confiscated photographs showing Arkan and Sevo standing together in military fatigues. "Sevo liked that picture," the investigator said. "It was for him to show the people back in Sweden that he was in Arkan's place and was with Arkan's Tigers. Sevo has told people he fought in the Balkans, but we don't know if that's true or not."

Other connections

Sevo had other connections. He befriended Dragan Joksovic, a gambler and a leader in Sweden's cigarette black market who in 1998 was killed at a racetrack during a feud over territory and profits. Cigarettes smuggled out of Yugoslavia and illegally sold across Europe were the hallmarks of a Balkan region that skirted economic sanctions and exported criminals.

"Joksovic put Sevo under his wing," said another police official who has investigated Sevo. "It was a time when the Balkan guys were taking over some of the best restaurants in Stockholm.... Joksovic thought when he died Sevo would take over the empire."

A picture taken of Sevo in prison shows a weightlifter's arms and a taut stomach. Sevo worked as a bouncer in discos and bars owned by Ratko Djokic, arms merchant, cigarette smuggler and boxing club entrepreneur. Sevo married the boss' daughter, Aleksandra. He cut his long dark hair. He wore nicer suits. And the assassination attempts began, including a convoluted scheme by three Russian hit men that ended when two of the would-be killers turned on the third, cutting him up with a chain saw and burying him in wet concrete.

In 2001, a gunman ambushed Sevo outside his home. Only slightly wounded, Sevo fired back. "That same night," said one investigator, "Sevo appeared in restaurants saying, 'You see, they can't hurt me.' "

Gunfire rang across Stockholm immediately after the attempt. Within four months, police said, two of Sevo's enemies had been killed and a third wounded. Sevo was arrested on suspicion of murder, but never convicted. In 2003, assassins shot his father-in-law 30 times outside a club. Sevo rose to become a central figure in Stockholm's crime scene, police said.

Attempts to reach Sevo through his lawyer were unsuccessful. A 2004 interview with Sevo appeared in the Belgrade tabloid Kurir under the headline, "Underworld: Confession of Milan Sevo." He said, "It is true that I am influential in the Stockholm underworld, but not in the sense of organized crime. I know a lot of people from the underworld who respect me, and I have a lot of friends who are in that. But since getting married, I have been doing only legal business."

At the time the interview appeared, Sevo was supposed to be serving a two-year prison sentence on weapons-related charges. But he had been on the run for months after receiving a weekend prison pass to visit his family. He fled Sweden with his wife and children and was arrested in March 2005 in Greece. He was extradited to Sweden, where he finished his sentence -- he served no extra time for the escape -- and was released June 17, 2005.

"We don't know where he is now," the police official said. "But he's not in Sweden."

About 250 miles from Stockholm, Scandinavian orderliness scrubs against Balkan unruliness in the immigrant neighborhoods fringing Goteborg. Women in scarves and long coats haul grocery bags over swept sidewalks, while in the apartments above, young men with cellphones to their ears stand at windows, looking down at pine trees and playgrounds.

Naser Dzeljilji arrived on these streets as a young man in the early 1980s. He mixed in with immigrants seeking work at the Volvo plant and other factories. He began breaking into houses, police say, and reportedly washed dishes and worked as a street cleaner before rising through the dark attrition of organized crime networks that straddle Sweden and Norway.

Involved in shootouts, jailed for stabbing a man, convicted of fraud and drug crimes, Dzeljilji has twice escaped to other countries: Macedonia in 2004 and Denmark in 2005. In the summer, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for drugs, weapons and conspiracy offenses but is free on appeal. Police say Dzeljilji, who also could not be reached through his attorney, is insulated by underlings who won't betray him.

"He's not flashy, no Armani suits, although sometimes you see him in a beautiful Mercedes," a detective specializing in organized crime said of Dzeljilji. "These days, though, he's been on the run or in the courts. In August, two guys ... shot him three times while he was parking his car. He's moving more stiffly."

Dzeljilji became a suspect in one of Scandinavia's most daring and violent robberies. On April 5, 2004, assailants set a van ablaze and set off tear gas near a police station in the Norwegian city of Stavanger. While police were preoccupied with the chaos, another team of about 13 men, clad in black and carrying sledgehammers and automatic weapons, broke into a nearby deposit center in the basement of Norway's central bank, killing a police officer and getting away with nearly $10 million.

The robbery was carried out by Norwegian crime boss David Toska, who was sentenced to 19 years in prison. Police also quickly focused on Dzeljilji and his organization, known as the Albania League. DNA and other evidence revealed that ethnic Albanians who worked for Dzeljilji as bodyguards were involved in the robbery. Two of them are in prison; the other has disappeared.

A few months after the heist, the case spun into another dimension when masked men startled tourists on a Sunday morning in an Oslo museum. The thieves ripped Edvard Munch's masterpieces "The Scream" and "Madonna" off the walls and fled in a waiting car. Prosecutors believe the paintings, recovered this year, were ordered stolen by Toska's gang to divert police attention from the deposit center robbery.

'Proverbial ambassador'

Petar Grujic knew Dzeljilji. He knew Sevo, too.

But Grujic didn't know the masked gunman who killed him on that summer afternoon in Malmo. Police would not comment on a suspect.

"Grujic was the proverbial ambassador," investigator Lundqvist said. "He was the one turning the wheels, the peacemaker between several different gangs. He was not a violent man, quite to the contrary."

Grujic wore big glasses and had bristly, gray-flecked hair. He arrived in Sweden in the 1970s, moving to Malmo ahead of thousands of immigrants who would eventually leaven the city with spices, embroidered linens and calls to prayer. Police say he was involved in restaurants and cigarette smuggling; he counseled Arkan, Joksovic and Djokic. He survived them all, living long enough to see his Yugoslavia implode.

Six months before his slaying, Grujic was kidnapped. His family called the police. He was released a day later, saying only that his abductors demanded 300,000 euros. It is not known whether he paid. Criminals of all persuasions attended his funeral, including a Hells Angels president who came as a pallbearer.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zoran Cirjakovic in Belgrade contributed to this report.

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